Lately I have been thinking a lot about celebrity, privilege, aspiration and the craft world. Could I have picked thornier topics? Probably not. Apologies for the long rant ahead. I had a lot to squeeze in and I could not always go as in-depth as the subject required.
Thanks to my job I spend a lot of time on Pinterest and looking at personal craft websites. After a while much of it blurs into one giant peach/mint blob of perfectly-coiffured people showing me how to make organic acai berry mojitos in expensively procured ‘authentic’ jam jars. It feels like much of the ‘making’ out there is now designed to get commercial brands interested in working with you rather than about the crafting/making itself. In its own way this reflects the lifestyle websites GOOP and Preserve launched by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Blake Lively. These are aspirational websites. Websites that are full of words like ‘artisan’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘mindfulness’ – whilst making you feel you are a bit of a failure for not being tall, skinny, blonde and rich.
This depresses me. The craft revival is precariously close to becoming Gooped and I fear we could be looking at the peach/mint-coloured beginning of the end if we are not careful.
Looking from a knitting industry & community perspective, we are not quite a peach/mint-coloured blob but we are looking awfully white, able-bodied, heterosexual and middle-class. I’ve thought a lot about the idea of privilege in knitting and I’ve had very long discussions with myself – from “Ravelry is showing us such a vast cross-section of body types” and “Knitting makes good clothes super-affordable” to the way I present my own identity online. It took me a long time to realise that the majority of popular patterns on Ravelry show a conventionally attractive white woman as their main photo; it took me far less time to notice how much we talk about high-end yarns. For years we have been having conversations about diversity in knitting, and yet I was strangely reluctant to start designing garments because I am plus-sized (I loathe this term, incidentally). Why did I feel so unsure of my body type in an environment that seemed to celebrate diversity? This was my personal light-bulb moment. The knitting world is not Goop or Preserve, but it is a great deal safer, more conventional and much more aspirational than we may like to admit. I mean, when one of the most controversial topics in recent knitting times was simply that a guy was wearing make-up in photos, it is maybe time to hit pause and reflect a bit.
So I hit upon a snag when it came to body image, but there is no denying that I am privileged. I am white, I scrub up nicely in photographs, and I can write fully-formed sentences in my second language from my charming kitchen office in adorable Scotland. It’s a nice mental image, isn’t it? You can almost taste the homemade acai berry mojito, right? I’ve written about this previously – but the knitting community does not tend to share the complexities of our every day existence (a few people do; most don’t). And I am one of the ones who shy away from writing about the darker sides of life. Writing about artisan yarns, authenticity in design, and mindful knitting is a lot nicer – even if it veers awfully close to Goop territory. I wonder if we are seeing a slow slide into lifestyle marketing of knitting? Will the knitting world eventually become a peach/mint-coloured blob as lifestyle becomes more important than what we make?
In my 2013 post I asked what would happened if we had to be ourselves online rather than a ‘carefully pruned, shaped thing that is presented to you [as] truth’ (to quote the author Jean Rhys)? The overwhelming response was that people were worried about presenting themselves as failures and that they felt compelled to be positive. I wrote that two years ago and I find it really interesting to compare the discussion to the idea of ‘a personal brand’ which is really pervasive in the knitting industry now. We have specialised marketeers now that work on defining brand identities, deliver customised social media content, and create marketing strategies for individual designers. I know some of them (all incredibly talented and hard-working people) and I am happy to see them work with some incredible designers that benefit from having a social media presence etc. On the other hand, there has been a real growth in out-of-nowhere ‘life coaches’ that talk about ‘being your Passion’, ‘finding your personal Joy’, spirituality, self-awareness, and so forth. This development confused me at first as I had assumed professional business advice would be flowing into the industry (accountants, graphic designers, admin tools) but I am wondering if it is the first sign that lifestyle branding is taking over? Working in the industry is now a lifestyle that necessitates a life coach, but not an accountant? Really? Will knitters be the next ones to need gentle guidance?
But going back to the idea of ‘a personal brand’, I have always struggled with this. Like so many other people in this knitting world, I am an introvert. I have a rich inner life; I like spending time on my own; I am quiet; and I like all those stereotypical introvert pursuits like reading a book, writing, and going to the library. Having to talk about myself and my work is really, really hard for me and while I love meeting other knitters, I find crowds quite stressful. Ultimately I rebel against the ‘personal brand’ tag because my job isn’t about me – it is about knitters. I was once asked ‘what do you want to be known for?’ and my honest answer was this: I don’t want to known for anything.’ For me, my job is to be a catalyst: Doggerland was about knitting inner landscapes and enjoying soothing, meditative knits as much as it was about making a shawl. It was about the person making the shawl, not about the person who wrote the pattern. It’s really, really not about me (even as I’m having this semi-rant).
Finally, a call to arms. Let us focus on the simple things in knitting. Let us make things because they bring us happiness. Let us focus on the knits and the purls. Let us embrace the joy of making something that keeps us warm in the depths of winter or on a cool summer’s night. Let us recognise and celebrate that we are all just ourselves. Reject the commodification of ‘the knitting lifestyle’. Reject narratives that tell you that you are too old, too young, too fat, too skinny, too anything to wear/make something. Reject narratives that only tall, skinny, blonde and rich actresses are worth our time. Reject notions that you have to knit with super-expensive yarns or circular needles to be a ‘real knitter’. Be yourself and enjoy your knitting.
Pass me the authentic superfood jam jar mojito.